Have you heard about using nutrition to help manage your autoimmune condition from your specialist? Chances are, you probably haven’t and neither had I throughout my 12 year journey with inflammatory arthritis. There are a growing number of books on the topic and the scientific literature has been quietly discussing nutrition and chronic disease for decades. So why does the general public, especially individuals with autoimmune disorders, lack access to this knowledge?
From my time in academia, I was privileged enough to have access to a wealth of scientific research articles and an intimate view into the research process. The detailed studies conducted in my field of archaeology rarely made it into the public sphere and I often wondered why access to research was lacking. Medical research is not as different as we would like to imagine. If often takes years, if not decades for research results to turn into clinical guidelines in the public sphere. There are many practical reasons for this, such as funding, lack of outreach programs, and, more importantly, the need for strict measures to enforce that new guidelines do no harm to the public.
Nutrition is a difficult subject for many reasons. It’s challenging to conduct a study and make sure that subjects eat a strict diet for an extended period of time. Nutrition is a very individualized tool for chronic disease management and it can often require months, if not years, to commit to real change and begin to feel the benefits. Results also depend upon confounding lifestyle factors, such as adequate sleep and minimal stress. There are many aspects to a ‘healthy diet’ and testing each one individually cannot tell us how they interact simultaneously. Scientific studies work with a much smaller time scale and scope. For this reason, science cannot always provide measurable evidence on the benefits of nutrition. Regardless of this, there is little, if any, harm in adopting a healthy diet and lifestyle when living with an autoimmune disorder. For this reason we, as patients, are often told to eat healthy without having clinical guidelines for using food as a management tool to achieve this vague call to action.
We don’t need to wait for the best research studies to start feeling better with food. We may feel like we have no power to change the course of research, but the research exists for us. The patient voice is a powerful force and we can demand more from our healthcare system. As a member of Arthritis Research Canada’s Arthritis Patient Advisory Board, I see, firsthand, the impact that the patient voice can have. Researchers are willing to listen if we are ready to demand a change. We need to start talking to our healthcare providers about nutrition and asking for more than tips on following national food guides. We deserve more than that. The research impacts us and the research exists because of us. Our voice has played an important role in the research on exercise and chronic disease, which has become a prominent topic in the academic sphere. There is no reason why nutrition can’t follow suit.
As a holistic nutritionist, I have been very fortunate to have been surrounded with colleagues who understand and support this shift in our medical system. Nutrition doesn’t need to be a ‘hippy’ or ‘alternative’ approach to managing our conditions. It is a relatively inexpensive way to provide support to our bodies when our immune systems are under attack. We need to stop thinking of nutrition as something separate from conventional medicine. It doesn’t need to be ‘alternative’, it can, and should be, complementary. I have used nutrition to heal inflammatory arthritis and it is now my priority to use my privilege to bring knowledge on nutrition to the public and to demand more from the research process and medical guidelines. Let’s change the conversation.
If you’re interested in learning more, stay tuned for my free public talks on arthritis and nutrition taking place in collaboration with BC’s Arthritis Society in the spring.